While not wanting to misuse my soapbox on politics, politics sometimes offers and confirms valuable lessons, like the Petraeus case. This week I thank Congress, for tying their salary to offering a 2013 budget plan! The lesson? The same as it was in the Petraeus case, it’s the quintessential clueless nature and the lack of humility associated with the top group of managers, decision-makers, or those who believe that they are leaders but whose followers are only from a narrow section of the community they profess to lead. I hope readers who have waded through my lengthy discussion of intergroup dynamics of top–middle–bottom resonated with much of what I wrote. All groups want to maintain and grow their power – in order to execute their ideas and plans. But often, the groups with the most power, vis a via other groups, tend to allow “gaining more power” to become the end rather than the means.
How a person behaves, or how a group acts, can best be understood in the context of relationships. Plainly, we experience and view the same person differently; there are always different nuanced perceptions, depending on the relationships. This holds true for group and intergroup dynamics. Further, the impact of group forces on individual members is quite often beyond our awareness and control. So, while groups may respond and react differently depending on the other groups with which to interact, there are patterns of attitudes and behaviors that can serve as signposts.
One of the “typical” responses with which the top group reacts to criticism or protest is the essentially-empty gesture. They may mean well; they often think that they are sincere in their attempts. But, inevitably they come off as “clueless” in the eyes of the other groups of lower ranks in the power structure. When the top group of people try very hard to ameliorate some problems within the organization, they always offer something that others could not care much about, such as a meaningless apology, forced resignation of someone (often seen as scapegoating) or giving back a token bonus, etc.
Congress just offered withholding that which is a meaningless bonus — their salary — until there is a budget plan. Why do I call this a meaningless bonus? Their salary is already in the very top of the income distribution for American population; just about ALL of them are multimillionaires; their salary is a relative pittance that probably doesn’t even match the interest derived from their assets. So, the collective of Congressional representatives do not truly understand how most Americans live and what they care about. I have to ask: Why don’t we have representatives that actually represent the population? Politics aside, my point here is: The Congressional representatives’ behavior is more about their internal fight for power posturing than what is really important for the big organization, our country. This pattern is often repeated in the top management group’s behavior; they are more concerned about their power base, their directory, than the whole of the organization.
I might have mentioned this example before, but it’s worth repeating. Years ago, I was involved in an “Executive Education” program, designed for middle-level managers; a typical class had 50-60 participants. One module was a learning lab on system dynamics; we did the top-middle-bottom experiential exercise for these participants. Several times I have observed and facilitated this exercise, in the “Ex Ed,” graduate level course, and undergraduate course. Inevitably, the participants in the “top” group, people who were mid-level managers in their day jobs, found that some aspects of group dynamics were beyond their control, however intelligent the participants all were. One time, the players belonging to the “top” group, in the “Ex Ed” program, decided to offer their shoes — some very nicely made with Italian leather — to the lower groups. Granted that this was in a learning environment, but the point is the same: The top level offers symbolic item that means little to everyone else. At another learning exercise, a bottle of wine and a corkscrew were involved; the struggles between the groups were just as fierce…with the top offering meaningless concession.
In the post-exercise debriefing, the instructors always emphasize that the top group needs to listen to what the lower level of workers have to say. After all, the lower rank of employees has much more direct experience than the top about the environment in which they work. But listening requires a healthy dose of humility.
How do we teach humility, especially to adults? Why has this been difficult for business schools curricula? Personally, I have been wrestling with this question for some time, without clear ideas. Would you please share with me and the readers how to achieve that goal? Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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- Qualities of a Servant Leader (palletone.com)